Stop panicking over birthrates

Sapporo

Regarding the Sept. 4 front-page article “Population of Tokyo to drop to half by 2100“: So much fuss has been made in the news media about the declining birthrate that it would be easy to mistake it for an impending disaster.

However, despite the pressure on an overburdened pension system, perhaps Japan should be looking further into the future. In a country that does not even produce enough food domestically to support its own population, could fewer babies really be so bad?

The axiom that “‘Japan is a small country” is demonstrably untrue. Japan is larger than any country in Western Europe. It is 30 percent larger than New Zealand and has 30 times more people. At 127 million, Japan boasts the 10th-largest population in the world. Resources are stretched: Japan must import much of its food, fuel and other commodities. Estimates have the population dropping to 95 million in the next 30 years. A smaller population in such a crowded space means more resources to go around. Japan will not have too few people in the future; it has too many today.

Yet septuagenarian politicians scratch their gray heads and ask how to boost the birthrate. They fear a dearth of young workers to support the growing number of retirees. Given that these “old boys” and most of their voting bloc should be retired already, it’s understandable. But a politician’s job is to look to the nation’s future, and not just his own.

Yes, there will be painful days ahead, but it may be time to look at the size of pensions and the base salary of new graduates and seek a more equitable balance. Bonuses and allowances are being cut, making it hard enough for the average worker to make ends meet, let alone to pay for grandma’s grocery shopping at Daimaru.

In Japan Inc., a woman’s place was traditionally at home. Vast numbers of women over the years paid taxes and insurance out of their husband’s salaries, but did not generate a single yen for the economy in over 30 years from marriage to retirement. With incentives to keep talented women in the workforce during and after child-rearing, the country can capitalize on its human potential in a way it has not done to date.

These bright young leaders will play a larger role in the economy than their grandmothers. Making better use of the people available can be just as good as making more people.

Changing demographics can benefit the nation in other ways. The tragic tsunami of 2011 destroyed whole villages and towns along a large stretch of coastline. With aging populations and declining economic fortunes, many of these communities will never be rebuilt. Instead they may have to be amalgamated into larger regional centers and see the land turned over to agriculture or industry. Such an opportunity to remake a large portion of the country should not be missed. It provides for a rethink of future models for environmental, economic and social reform that could be transplanted to other ailing areas of the country.

There is no need to panic. Declining birthrates are a natural progression in developed, wealthy nations. Japan needs to think now about how to manage its human resources — not just to cope with the coming change but to capitalize on it. It is impossible to go back to the “good old days.” Leaders must plan for Japan’s actual future instead of dwelling on a romantic vision of restoring the past.

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.

craig currie